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Braves could win NL East

LAS VEGAS – Seems hard to believe, but it has been four years since the Atlanta Braves were good.

But they aren’t as bad as their 72-90 mark of 2008.

Oddsmakers feel that way. They’ve listed Atlanta’s regular-season ‘over/under’ win total at 83 ½.

In my opinion, that total still is short. Look for the Braves to bounce back this season. They went 84-78 two years ago.

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Atlanta is more than capable of finishing three games above .500 this year - which is 84 victories - with a re-tooled starting pitching staff, an underrated infield, promising young outfielders, an excellent catcher, a healthy bullpen loaded with potential closers and a top manager in Bobby Cox.

Some are down on the Braves because they lost John Smoltz, didn’t sign shortstop Rafael Furcal and failed to trade for Jake Peavy.

The Braves did sign free agent Derek Lowe and traded for Javier Vazquez. They also imported Kenshin Kawakame from Japan to go with promising Jair Jurrjens. They also brought in Tom Glavine.

Glavine is a likely Hall of Famer, but he’s washed-up. The Braves, though, could have the best rookie pitcher in baseball, Tommy Hanson, if they choose to go with him instead of Glavine.

Hanson is the reason trade talks with San Diego for Peavy fell through. The Braves won’t deal Hanson.

The Braves have another Rookie of the Year candidate if they choose to play him in the big leagues this season, center fielder Jordan Schafer. He’s competing with another extremely talented young player, Josh Anderson.

Atlanta fortified its outfield and brought in a veteran tutor for Schafer and Anderson acquiring Garrett Anderson, a consistent .300-type hitter.

All-Star Brian McCann ranks with the Dodgers’ Russell Martin as the best catcher in the National League.

Atlanta’s corners are managed by batting champ Chipper Jones and Casey Kotchman, who also can hit for a good average although not with the power of departed first baseman Mark Teixeira.

The middle infield is underrated with second baseman Kelly Johnson, shortstop Yunel Escobar and utility player Omar Infante. They all batted between .287 and .293 last season.

The Braves’ bullpen blew up last year in part because Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan all suffered injuries. All three are back and capable of closing.

The National League East could be more wide open that people think.

The world-champion Philadelphia Phillies are holding their breath with ace pitcher Cole Hamels having a sore pitching elbow.

The underachieving New York Mets look good on paper, but have to prove they are mentally tough after their monumental choke job last season.

The Florida Marlins always seem to be living on the cheap and the Washington Nationals remain a bad joke.

So not only could the Braves finish above 83 ½ wins, they could just sneak off with a division title.

  
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